About the Cordwainers

Custom Handmade Leather Footwear | Our History and our Craft

The Cordwainer Shop was founded in the 1930's by Edward F. Mathews. His son, Paul, carried on the shop tradition as main footwear designer, and except for a 4-year stint in WWII, shoemaking became his life's work and joy. Many of his footwear designs are still produced at the shop today. Molly Grant now carries on the Cordwainer tradition of creating custom handmade leather footwear, and it has become as much a passion to Molly as it was to Paul. She specializes in teaching shoemaking workshops as a way to share this tradition of craftsmanship.

Vintage Singer sewing machine use in shoemaking at the Cordwainer Shop
The Cordwainer Shop, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow
Vintage wooden lasts used to shape shoes at the Cordwainer Shop

A History of the Cordwainer Shop

As told by Paul Mathews

The story of the Cordwainer Shop begins in 1900. My father, Edward Mathews, fresh out of high school and fired up to bring culture to the back woods, began to seek his fortune as a traveling bookseller for the Tabbard Inn Library. Driving around the countryside with horse and buggy, dressed "to the nines," complete with derby hat and toothpick shoes, his feet were complaining. He pulled up to a wayside watering trough and on an impulse dunked them, shoes and all, in the refreshing water. That experience launched him onto the quest for comfortable footwear. He soon discovered that the only available sensible footwear to be found was in the style of "old men's comfort shoes," typically made of black vici kid with boxed toe and laced up over the ankle. Many must have been the curious glances cast after the sober Beau Brummel with the incongruous footwear! But Father, already unconventional, was totally indifferent in his determination to find the truth. (One of his many well-remembered adages he liked to quote from Emerson: "We can be busy and commonplace, or devote our lives to the discovery of the laws that live!")

He set about to do something to "make a difference," to effect a change in the concept of correct footwear and to make foot comfort the rule of fashion. It was this objective which conceived and launched the revolutionary Antioch Research at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, in the early 1920s. This was a comprehensive and innovative study of the effects of conventional footwear as defined in the "flapper" image on the posture and functional foot health of the subject coeds.

"As fools rush in where angels fear to tread," the revolutionary study had the advantage of being unprejudiced by unconventional training, and flew in the face of reigning orthodox orthopedic principles, as in so-called "corrective" women's footwear visually and functionally encumbered with such atrocities as two inch stacked heels and rigid steel shanks.

"The pliable deerskin moccasin of the American Indian and the classical heelless sandal of the ancient Greeks, these were the true prototypes of modern footclothing." This was his expression of the ideal and concept which produced the original Antioch Shoe, the first "style shoe" designed with low heels and round toes.

Came the crash! This event brought into Father's focus and consciousness a new aspect of the problem: how to construct a practical shoe or kit of shoe parts which could be assembled at home by unskilled hands to make an economical and healthful shoe for children of families in depressed circumstances. The development of this "self taught kit" idea led to the unique hand-sewn method of shoe construction that is distinctive today in our fine handcrafted line of custom footwear.

About Molly Grant

Artisan and Shop Proprietor

Portrait of Molly Grant, Owner and Artisan at the Cordwainer Shop

Molly Grant began leatherworking in her early 20's, first by working on her own and then by apprenticing at the Black Swan Leather shop in Portsmouth, NH, where she learned the basic skills of traditional leatherworking. She first saw Cordwainer Shoes when she was ten years old at the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen's Fair, known nationally as the oldest craft fair in the nation. She became a juried member in 1989, and participated by showing her line of handbags. There, she had the opportunity to meet Paul Mathews, owner of the Cordwainer Shop. Within a few months' time Molly was traveling to craft shows nationally with Paul and learning the Cordwainer art. Molly still makes handbags, but the main business is teaching shoemaking workshops at the Goffstown, New Hampshire shop and at craft schools across the country.